The slivers of wood fill up my lap and gather around my feet. It is my next carving project and while it would be much better on my hands to use a power tool, I use instead a simple knife. It is carving or whittl’n or wood sculpting, whatever you choose to call it. I call it real slow and painful. But I have come to see this as a holy event, a thinly vailed place, where what is whispered in my ear and heart slowly find their way to the block of wood that is being made into a year long project. It is what I call a “thin place”.
Celtic Spirituality, the time honored tradition of the christians of Ireland, describes such places where the holy pushes open the door into our physical world as a “Thin Place”. Those thin places for me are slivers of wood that are removed one stroke at a time, making the block into something meaningful. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God. A contemporary poet, Sharlande Sledge gives this description:
“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.
The carving gives me a chance to ponder and speak to God on this day. A sliver here, a pull of the knife there, prayers for all that is happening, for family, for friends and a look at my slow progress. I look twice and carve once, which is what Michael Angelo said of his own sculpture, accept I am no Michael Angelo and the art piece I am working on is no David. My mind goes to my veteran friend and I realize that no amount of looking and carving is going to physically take away her cancer and pain.
We visited her last night, entering her hospital room to find her sister, brother-in-law, and three children all in conversation. You could sense the anticipation of what is to come as we entered and the weight of the conversation. The cancer now has spread all over her body, but there, being held closely, was her “dammit” doll. A “dammit” doll of all things, gripped tightly in her hands, squeezed ever so closely to her chest, and a morphene pump at the ready. A “dammit” doll by the way, for those of you who aren’t familiar with such, is an ugly doll that is sold to those where life is too much and one can take out the frustrations of such on this ugly object.
Yet at the sight of our entrance into her world, the doll went to her side, she dropped the push button to the pump, and she flung her arms open wide for a hug. We are not sure today how many more of those we will receive from our veteran friend. The door that opened to that room was also a peek into a God shaped space.
After our hugs, Karen sat on the bed next to her and I sat down at the end, close to her nieces and nephew. It was a first occasion for our meeting the children. They are all vietnamese, using english as a second language, having difficulty still with all that is happening. All of the names of the children start with the letter K, followed by the letter E. ‘Why we were practically cousins’, I told them!
We had interrupted a sibling squabble over checkers by our arrival and our entry into their midst only paused the feud. After our introduction, what with me being about 95% kid, I suggested that we let our checkers do the talking and it was now on. We moved some of her flowers and cards off of her rolling bed tray and loaded up the board while Karen could spend time with our friend and her sister, loving, patting, holding; absorbing the moments and filling the space with a holy kind of presence.
We “children” would have our own appointment into whatever little minds could comprehend which at the time was checkers. Rocks, Paper, Scissors became the determining introduction for who would go first between us “kids” and I lost each time I started the match. Needless to say, I didn’t fare much better at the actual checkers game.
I noticed an open box in the room that contained the game “Catch Phrase”. ‘Oh, I would fare much better in Catch Phrase’, I told them. Within ear shot I could hear the discussion, the thinly vailed discussion, of hospice and doctors and social workers and psychiatrists, all items way beyond the understanding of little minds and in this case, ever so sadly, way too early for big ones too. The contrasts in the room were all so blatently evident. Our friend is rather small in stature, filling up only about half of the big ole hospital bed. The kids and her sister, tiny as well. And me, making up about three of them under one 3xl tall shirt.
The Catch Phrase game included head bands that each of the kids would wear that contained a little slot to hold the catch phrase card. After putting it on, the player couldn’t see what the item was on the card and it was the other players roles to provide the hints. It was soon my turn and none of the head bands were made for a head the size of mine, and every time I would try and put it on, it would pop off, causing the kids to bust out laughing. Soon the laughter had spread and the more serious conversation of all of the end of life stuff became ones of laughter and then it happened; A Thin Place!
Our friend had not laughed in weeks and now she had a rather large opportunity to laugh; one sitting at the end of her bed, with a dammit doll by her side, her friends and sister, nieces and nephew, all finding an opportunity to smile in the midst of life unbearable; A thin Place.
My slivers of wood are all piling up now. I am hopeful that what is left on the wood is more like the object I want to create than the pile of wood shavings at my feet. It is not so different in our lives, is it? That somehow what is being created of us by a God unseen and at times seen, is somehow better, somehow more like the creator, than what we were before the whittl’n started?